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India, the Taliban, and the Country In Between

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India, the Taliban, and the Country In Between

The India-Taliban-Pakistan triangle provides a window into the Taliban’s desire to pursue both material and ideological interests.

India, the Taliban, and the Country In Between

As part of its humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan, India has been providing medical assistance to the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 20, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/MEAIndia

A year after their takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s system of governance remains marred with controversies spanning from violence against minorities to disregard for women’s rights. More controversially, ties with terror groups such as al-Qaida, internal frictions, and attacks by the Islamic State Khorasan Province have exacerbated Afghanistan’s security landscape. Along with the degradation of national security conditions, socioeconomic indicators point to a grim forecast.

The Taliban are faced with intricate dilemmas. The group’s desire to strike a balance between gaining domestic and international legitimacy on one hand, and maintaining ideological and symbolic interests on the other, seems to result in an arduous, inconsistent, and unpredictable national and foreign policy.

In this context, it is worth looking into the India-Taliban-Pakistan triangle in order to operationalize the correlation between the Taliban’s intent to manage their material and ideological interests.

When the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001, the latter’s dependence on Pakistan grew exponentially. Apart from the resources provided by Pakistan, it was during this period that the Taliban began strengthening ties with Pakistan-based outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), leading to a series of coordinated attacks against Indian security and interests. Today, however, at a time when the Taliban are seeking to achieve domestic and international legitimacy, Taliban leaders are realizing that they cannot continue to keep all their eggs in the Pakistani basket. Moreover, even the billions of dollars promised by China as future investments in Afghanistan remain uncertain.

India has cemented its position as a major developmental partner of Afghanistan and has also earned the goodwill of Afghans. It does not project a narrowly defined strategic ambition with its investment in Afghanistan; rather, it seeks to take part in effectively creating a conducive environment for growth for the Afghans. This people-centric approach is a key leverage India has over other regional states vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Moreover, given its geographical proximity, economic size, military capacity, and robust diplomatic network, India serves as a crucial and palpable component in the Taliban’s quest for internal and external legitimacy. Hence, in a bid to demonstrate more autonomy, the Taliban have been engaging in activities that challenge Pakistan’s desire to maintain an uncontested degree of influence over Afghanistan’s affairs. In fact, the Taliban have openly expressed their discontent toward Pakistan’s attempts to undermine their development and relations with India.

Amid the Taliban’s attempts to illustrate independence from the influence of Pakistan and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, two critical developments continue to unfold, which have direct implications for Pakistan’s security. First, the Taliban’s growing support for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) significantly provokes the interests of the Pakistani government in maintaining conducive conditions for growth at a time when the country is plunging deeper into political and economic turmoil. In fact, with the return of the Taliban, the TTP’s chief Noor Wali Mehsud not only renewed his allegiance to the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan but also emphasized that the TTP is an extension or branch of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Moreover, according to a report prepared by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), militant attacks in 2021 surged by 56 percent, with the highest levels coinciding with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Afghan Taliban’s ambiguous role as a mediator between the Pakistani government and the TTP adds another layer of uncertainty for Islamabad regarding its capacity to influence the Taliban.

The second issue revolves around the unwillingness of the Taliban to accept the Durand Line – the 2,640-kilometer border between both countries. The continuous pressure being put on the Pakistani government by the TTP vis-à-vis the reversal of the merger of the tribal areas into the Pakistan mainland may ideationally soften and alter the dynamics of the Durand Line, giving the Taliban a geopolitical advantage based on its claims and interests.

Given their intent to showcase more autonomy vis-à-vis Pakistan, the Taliban have congruently been seeking to improve ties with India to tap its expanding normative and material capacity.  Not only are the Taliban urging India to increase its role in Afghanistan’s growth by resuming its development assistance projects, but also they are seeking India’s support in training Afghan troops. Since their return, the Taliban have also expressed their desire to deepen diplomatic and commercial ties with India, examples of which include their support for the Chabahar Port project in Iran as a platform for regional trade and connectivity.

Given this backdrop, India has reciprocated to a certain extent by providing humanitarian assistance and re-opening its embassy in Kabul, albeit with only a technical team in place. More importantly, India also sent its first official delegation to Afghanistan in June this year, which paved the way for direct interaction with senior Taliban officials. However, while observers are keen on predicting how New Delhi’s future engagements with the Taliban will pan out, it is safe to assume that India’s decision-making will reflect a clear understanding of realpolitik.

Geopolitically speaking, India has several critical stakes in the region ranging from connectivity projects throughout South and Central Asia to issues of energy security and the proliferation of terror activities. Accordingly, Afghanistan maintains its centrality among all the aforementioned areas of concern. Moreover, while India remains invested in the people of Afghanistan, it will have to proactively engage with the group in power to facilitate long-term areas of convergence without directly granting legitimacy to the Taliban. New Delhi cannot afford to stay behind the line of regional players seeking to incorporate the Taliban and Afghanistan in their strategic calculations.

Most importantly, India must maintain a position that factors in the potential of future uncertainty. The Taliban may be showing significant accommodation toward India in terms of attaining their material interests; however, there is barely any evidence that the Taliban have the desire to marginalize or abandon their ideological interests.

While the Taliban agreed to prohibit al-Qaida and other terror groups from using Afghanistan during the February 2020 Taliban-U.S. agreement in order to improve the former’s domestic leadership and benefit from external engagements, evidence indicates that the Taliban continue to prioritize their relations with al-Qaida and honor the pledges of allegiance made by key members of the organization to Taliban leaders – from Mullah Muhammad Omar to Mullah Akhtar Mansour and Haibatullah Akhundzada. Moreover, despite the history of accommodation given to the Taliban by Islamabad over the past two decades, the Taliban are still not ready to disentangle from ideological allies such as the TTP. China faces a similar scenario vis-à-vis its concerns regarding the Taliban’s ties with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)

Similarly, the Taliban continue to sympathize and maintain an ideological connection with fellow Deobandi groups. Their accommodation in Afghanistan by the Taliban allows the latter to utilize the former as a bargaining chip with Pakistan. In the context of Pakistan, Deobandism is often linked with several militant groups operating in and from Pakistan, many of which target Kashmir, resulting in the exacerbation of domestic peace and security. Hence, such situations directly impact India’s security and interests within its territory and throughout the region.

The Taliban’s desire to balance material and ideological interests and goals creates an undesirable equation toward regional security and peace. Moreover, this creates problems for the group’s desire to forge a sustainable long-term roadmap of engagement with neighbors like Pakistan and India. While India’s role was relatively delayed vis-à-vis other regional states, it still carries significant leverage in both material and normative aspects. Hence, New Delhi must proactively engage based on a deep realization of short-term and long-term costs and benefits, unlike Pakistan, which has been largely reactive in its approach toward the Taliban.